REVIEW: Melancholy HAMLET at RepStage

Many creative people find their muse and enjoy long associations with them.  Kasi Campbell, a clearly talented and creative person has apparently found hers in actor Karl Miller, titular star of RepStage's Hamlet, having directed him in several productions, to award-winning acclaim.  Campbell/>/> has gone on record as saying he is "the Hamlet of [her] dreams," thus she relies quite heavily on his interpretation of the role, and the entire production seems to have been skewed in that direction.  Were Miller giving a definitive performance as in Olivier's Hamlet or Gielgud's Hamlet, or heck, even Mel Gibson's Hamlet, this slant might be understandable.  Unfortunately, this is not the case. 

Mr. Miller is doing what I refer to as ACTING SHAKESPEARE.  Everything about his performance is calculated, affected and LARGER THAN LIFE.  Every carefully planned, never genuine twitch of the hand, smug wipe of the face, haughty sneer at the audience (but cleverly never directly at us), does nothing to illuminate the struggling young Dane, but everything to illuminate what must be thought of as great ACTING.  He has the whole Shakespearean actor shtick down pat, and his director has done nothing to hold back his need for scenery chewing.  His skills are considerable – he ELONGATES words mid-sentence as if to say, "Listen as I contemplate every syllable." He PAUSES MEANINGFULLY at what I am sure are carefully chosen times, but the effect often leaves one thinking, "What was that about?  I forget what he was saying."  (The "to be or not to be" soliloquy may best be described as overwrought and highly pretentious.)  The whole performance is just this side of parody, and is reminiscent of the occasional Shakespeare send up on MadTV or Saturday Night Live.  Surely, acting shouldn't be this exhausting – he looked wiped out by the end.  And the audience needn't be exhausted from the experience, either.  At the curtain call, he looked surprised, maybe slightly disappointed, when only a few of the crowd stood, rather than an enraptured throng standing as one.  That unexpected event must be why he did absolutely nothing, not a smile or quick nod, even, to acknowledge his co-stars.  Maybe he was still in character.

The result of this one man show mentality leaves the rest of the large cast with the unenviable task of making an impression with little support.  Some do nicely, such as James Flanagan and Brandon McCoy as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in appropriately stagy, comedic roles, infused with a slightly underhanded undertone so as to make their assignment to watch Hamlet believable.  Aubrey Deeker's Horatio is also quite good, and Kathleen Coons' Ophelia is a wonderfully layered performance, particularly striking as she descends into madness following the murder of her father, Polonius.  I don't recall Polonius generating much laughter in previous productions, but as directed and played by Lawrence Redmond, he was at times pretty humorous.  The rest of the company either leaves no impression (I almost forgot Laertes (Daniel Frith) was a character when he re-entered in the second act), or a bad one.  Valerie Leonard's Gertrude comes across as a soap diva/runway model – she clearly gets a kick out of her big white cape, and Nigel Reed's Claudius is oatmeal bland.  The effect leaves one to ponder why Hamlet is so upset with these pretty people rather than to contemplate a sinister matching of power, wit and betrayal.

It speaks volumes for a production of Hamlet when, during the intermission, the crowd is discussing the set and lighting, and not its players.  Such a discussion might be acceptable if these elements added to, rather than detracted from, the play itself.  Chief among the set issues (designed by Tony Cisek) is the hole center stage.  I thought it a constant reminder of the effect of Hamlet's father's death, until it was finally shut with the burial of Ophelia, not Hamlet.  Now I just think it was a pretentious symbol of the entire production.  I simply can't forgive the waste of my time spent worrying is anyone going to fall in?  Accidentally trip?  Who or what is going in or coming out of it?  I should have been able to focus on the play, right?  And the lighting (designed by Dan Covey), equally pretentious in that "let's throw every effect we can into this, but make it just ambiguous enough so as to confuse the audience" way.  Again it was a distraction – good lighting is unnoticed lighting.  Costume-wise (designed by Kathleen Geldard), this Hamlet offers nothing new – it is yet another modern-dress classic that uses gelled, purposely mussed hair, coupled with a long leather coat and roughly used boots on the men and modern girl pants and peasant dresses on the ladies.  And oddly, Mr. Miller, who is MOURNING is never in black.  The one thing you should be able to walk away from this play with is the fact that Hamlet is 100% mourning 100% of the time.  And while I applaud the designer's choice not to make Hamlet's father a ghost disciple of A Christmas Carol, perhaps something to suggest he is from the dead might have alleviated the confusion when the same actor (James Denvil) reappears in a few other parts.

None of this is to say that Kasi Campbell is lacking in the directorial department.  She has created some of the most stunning stage pictures I've seen in years, and even has the sense to slow things down in places to let us enjoy the tableau.  Martha Swope should be called to shoot a spread in Playbill, it is that nice to look at.  Even the scene transitions are slick, quick and even help with telling us what is about to happen.  Ms. Campbell's award-winning skills are particularly evident when staging the play-within-the-play scene and the creepy ghost sighting scenes in act one.  In fact, the ghost story part is what played best.  And the ending sword fight is absolutely thrilling.  Too bad there wasn't more of that.

Yes, any good Hamlet has an excellent Hamlet at its center.  And any excellent Hamlet spreads the focus to the rest of the company, and the result is one, unified play.  RepStage has a potentially good (bring it down a notch or three, Karl) Hamlet and two or three plays (Hamlet the One-man Show, Hamlet the Ghost Story, Hamlet the Soap Opera) going on at once, and none of them really work by themselves.

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